Stetner, David, 1914-2002

David Stetner in 1957
David Stetner in 1957

A short biography of Romanian-Jewish anarchist and French resident David Stetner, who founded Yiddish anarchist journal Der Freie Gedank.

Submitted by Steven. on January 4, 2007

Born in 1914 in Budapest, David Stetner passed the great part of his adolescence in the Bukovina. His family was unstable but relatively cultured. His mother was a great fan of German literature. He became interested in anarchist ideas at the age of 17 and started attending secret meetings held in the woods outside the town of Czernovitz. He read and discussed the works of Mikhail Bakunin and Rudolf Rocker, among others. He deserted from the Romanian army on two occasions. As a result, he knew a life of vagrancy, prison, hunger, humiliation and punishment.

He decided to move to France, rather than elsewhere, “Because France, for me, broken as I was by the Romanian military boot, was the land of the 1789 Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” On the way there, he was helped by many fine people. Sharing a tiny maid’s bedroom with a Bulgarian refugee, his existence in Paris was the desperate life of a “sans-papiers” ("without papers" – illegal immigrant). He wanted to volunteer to join the anarchist militias in the civil war in Spain, but was dissuaded by the secretary in France of the Federacion Anarquista Iberica, who explained that the Francoist victories and the Stalinist betrayals had already drastically undermined the Spanish social revolution.

On the eve of the Second World War, he met Golda, the woman with whom he was to share the rest of his life. During the war, they had to hide in tiny apartments. They often escaped deportation by the skin of their teeth, which was not the case with David’s family, still living in Romania. All of them, except for one sister, perished in the death camps.

At the end of the war, he got a job as social worker for camp survivors. This affected him deeply. At the same time, he restarted his life as an anarchist militant and joined the Jewish anarchist group of Pre-Saint-Gervais. He contributed to the weekly paper of the Federation Anarchiste. He felt, however, that French anarchists did not have a clear understanding of Jewish identity. This led him to found a Yiddish anarchist magazine, Der Freie Gedank (Free Thought).This Yiddishophone publication ran from 1949 to 1966 and included Jacques and Rosa Doubinsky - veterans of the Russian and Bulgarian anarchist movements - and Nikola and Lea Tchorbadieff - Kamener among its members. David passed whole nights editing this paper armed with a typewriter with a Hebraic typeface. The paper had a run of 1,000 and was distributed throughout the Yiddish speaking world.

Worn out from producing the paper, he brought it to an end in 1966. In the 70s, agonised by the consequences of anti-Semitism, he began to argue for the right of Jews to live in Israel. He was very critical of the feudal Arab leaders, including the Palestinians. He waxed lyrical over the kibbutzim, but failed to offer any real critique of the Israeli state. In 1986 he did call for solidarity with Israeli war resisters and for mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs.

The death of Golda, the reverses and defeats of the social, internationalist and libertarian movements left him in a state of profound sadness. But he remained attached to his Jewish identity and his anarchist convictions right up to his death in July 2002 at the age of 88.

Nick Heath